Staying in Trouble and Being Undisciplined, part one

A few weeks ago I gave a presentation on my research, particularly as it relates to feminist media studies. Here is the first part of it. I plan to post the other parts in upcoming entries.

Staying in Trouble and Being Undisciplined,
or one way of doing feminist interdisciplinary work on and through digital media

I often tell students one effective way to understand what an author is trying to say is to explain their title. In that spirit I want to begin this presentation by explaining my title; in many ways, it speaks to who I am and what I aim to do as a scholar, critical thinker and educator-activist.


Staying in trouble and being undisciplined:
In much of my work, I am interested in exploring the ethical and political value of making and staying in trouble for feminist and queer projects and practices.  This work is partly inspired by Judith Butler and her claim that “trouble is inevitable, the task how best to make it, what best way to be in it.”  While I imagine troublemaking and troublestaying working in many different ways, I am particularly interested in how they can connect to a feminist curiosity about the world, a persistent desire to ask lots of questions (like “why?” and “at whose expense?”), and a refusal to uncritically accept ideas or practices as given and beyond question.

In relation to my valuing of staying in trouble, I also identify myself as being undisciplined. I like to experiment with what counts as “knowledge” and who counts as a “knower.” I frequently experiment with and attempt to transgress boundaries and unsettle “proper” ways of knowing and producing knowledge. I often like to put disciplinary forms of knowledge into conversation in unexpected ways and my work frequently resides at the limits of disciplines. I am also undisciplined in how I engage with and on social media. I frequently push at the limits of how blogs, for example, can (or maybe should) be used.  Yet, even though I am undisciplined, my ability to do so comes from extensive disciplinary training and results in repeated, very purposeful practices.

One way of doing feminist interdisciplinary work:
I do not wish to present my work on trouble and digital media as the model for how to do interdisciplinary feminist work. Instead it is one vision that hopefully serves as an invitation to others to critically engage and to offer up their own understandings of how we might do feminist interdisciplinary work. My vision comes out of an understanding of feminism as a collection of movements and communities that exist in relation to and beside other social movements and that gains vitality from not reconciling the various ways in which it gets expressed/realized/enacted/practiced. It is interdisciplinary because I draw from a number of different disciplines, including: philosophy, education, religion, ethics, cultural studies, media studies and political science. I understand the work that I do to include: not only the finished products of my research, but the thinking/connecting/experimenting/processing work that I also do. I aim to make all aspects of that work visible and accessible to others.

on and through social media
I engage in research that is on (about) digital media, particularly exploring the limits and possibilities of digital media for feminist pedagogical projects. I also use digital media to engage in and document that research and thinking. While I focus primarily on blogs and, more recently, some on twitter, I am also interested in critical explorations of facebook and youtube, digital storytelling, creating digital videos, video-logs, podcasts, and maptivism through google maps.

Why social media?
First, I believe that there is tremendous potential in digital/social media in shifting how we value and engage in learning and producing and sharing knowledge. I have already written extensively about blogs and how they can foster experimentation, enable us to get our work out to others immediately (more accessible to wider audience), allow others to engage with us, and encourage collaboration and sharing of resources.

Second, social media isn’t going anywhere. We need to develop strategies for critically engaging with it (not just rejecting it or uncritically embracing it). How do we respond to the ever-increasing presence of social media in our lives/classrooms/workplaces? How are social media shaping who we are, what we know and how we know it? In many ways, we are in a social media era where it is not so much a matter of being for or against social media; they affect us/shape how we are intelligible as consumer-citizen subjects and regulate what information/ideas/products that we have access to. So, the question is not: are we for or against social media, but how can we position ourselves in relation to social media in ways that are more resistant to its harmful effects while harnessing its potentially transformative possibilities? How do we use social media in resistant, transgressive and transformative ways? How do we develop strategies/ways-of-being that enable us to use/engage with social media for our feminist pedagogical-theoretical-activist practices and projects? What role can feminist scholar/educators/activists have in shaping how social media is practiced–in how people are trained to use them? What skills they develop as they post, tweet and update their statuses?

Third, in my own practices, I find digital media, especially blogs, to be very exciting and useful. Here’s what I recently wrote about why and how I use blogs:

Having used blogs in my courses since early 2007 and in my own research, writing and collaborative projects since 2009, I see them as potentially powerful spaces for radical transformation, critical and creative expression and community-building. They play a central role in all aspects of my life as a thinker, learner, writer, teacher and researcher. I write in three of my own blogs and I make blogs a central part of all my classes. I use my personal and course blogs to encourage myself and my students to archive our ideas, to document our research, to put seemingly disparate ideas or representations into conversation, to offer up various accounts of ourselves, to build relationships with visible and invisible/known and unknown readers, to experiment with pedagogical techniques, to cultivate effective writing and thinking habits, to disrupt the rigid rules and disciplinary borders that discourage new ideas and unexpected connections, to lay bare our own thinking and writing process, to practice what we teach (and preach), to develop connections between our different selves, and to remind ourselves that being thinkers/learners/teachers can be energizing and fun. In addition to all of these reasons, writing on my own blogs and using blogs in the classroom enables me to access my feminist troublemaking self.  Through blogging, I reject rigid boundaries between disciplines, find creative ways to connect my research with my life, and infuse my ideas with a sense of humor. I play with what should count as rigorous scholarship or as proper objects of study. I cultivate a curiosity about the world that is motivated by a desire for engaging and experimenting with ideas as opposed to acquiring knowledge. And I invite my fellow bloggers (inside and outside of my classes) to join me at an experimental and unsettling space where we strive to remain open to new ideas and to critically exploring the limits of our own perspectives.

I didn’t start out a few years back, intending to think about/reflect on blogging and social media so much. Instead, I wanted a space to begin documenting and archiving my writing and ideas, ideas that had been brewing for years but that I never had time to formulate in concrete ways. I also wanted a space to experiment with new course assignments. However, once I began writing on this research/thinking blog, I knew that if I were to use blogs effectively, I needed to learn more about how they function, how others are using them, and what specific limits and possibilities they offer to an undisciplined and interdisciplinary feminist educator/activist/troublemaker. For the past year and a half, I have devoted a lot of time to researching, writing about and engaging in blogging practices.  In the last six months, I have expanded my work to think more broadly about social mediatwitter, in particular–and its limits and possibilities, particularly, but not exclusively, in relation to feminist (and queer) pedagogy.

Having explained my title as a way to introduce, in broad strokes, who I am as scholar and educator, I want to offer up several of my current research projects and the clusters of questions that these projects raise for me.  As part of my own troublestaying and undisciplined approach to feminist work, I gravitate towards questions instead of answers. In the next entry, I will discuss my first research project.

Oh bother, part 18: The Christmas Commercial Showdown: Target vs. Walmart

Check out these two commercials. Both attempt to capture the excitement of the holidays and the anticipation of opening presents from the perspective of kids. One is for Target and one is for Walmart.



So, you may wonder, what bothers me about these commercials? I’m not quite sure….I just know that it has something to do with class, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. “progressive”, tradition vs. innovation. Also, I keep thinking of Target and how they have managed to maintain the image of cool and progressive even as their practices aren’t. Is this type of commercial one of the reasons why?

Sara Ahmed and The Promise of Happiness

For the past several weeks, my queering desire class has been reading Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness. Here are my class summaries for our discussions of Ch. 2 on the feminist killjoy and Ch. 3 on unhappy queers. In reading through the chapters, I have come across several passages/ideas that I would like to use/critically reflect/incorporate/put beside my own work on troublemaking. I want to use this blog entry as a space for beginning a few different engagements with the material.

Engagement 1: Bearable and Unbearable lives

On page 97 of The Promise of Happiness, in her chapter on “Unhappy Queers,” Sara Ahmed writes:

I don’t have much else to write about this right now. I must admit that I skipped ahead to engagement 2 and have spent too long thinking about it. Now I am out of time. I am struck by the slippage that I see in J Butler’s work between the unbearable, bearable, livable and good life. I briefly wrote about it in my essay on Living and Grieving Beside Judith. Here’s the fragment:

Butler contrasts her notion of the livable/bearable life with the good life and argues that the good life is only available to people whose lives are already possible and recognizable and who don’t have to devote most of their energy to figuring out ways to survive and persist (Undoing Gender, 31-32). For her, the question of the livable life must necessarily precede the question of the good life, because to strive for a good life, one must first be recognized as having a life (Undoing Gender, 205).

My mom started falling down a lot. It wasn’t safe for her to be alone. The decision was made to begin hospice care. She was no longer living with cancer; she was dying from it. She had entered the final stage. Any thoughts about a cure or remission—that hope for a good life to be achieved again in the future—was replaced by practical discussions of how to ensure that she continued to have a comfortable life that was free of pain. The good or even livable life were no longer possible for her. The best she could hope for was the bearable life. And what she could expect (and eventually did reach) was something that seemed even less than the bare minimum requirements of life. Yet, even as I witnessed her decline and the resultant shift from good to livable to bearable to unbearable life, I can’t really make sense of her experiences of those last four years (or even the last six months) as just surviving until the inevitable. Up until those last days, years after she was supposed to die, she lived and, in moments, however fleeting, flourished. She enjoyed life, she laughed, and she loved her daughters, her grandchildren and my dad.

What makes for the livable life? How do we distinguish that life from ones that are merely bearable or others that flourish? Who gets to make this distinction and how do they do it? My mother’s living and dying with pancreatic cancer pushed at the limits of my understandings of life and how and when it is possible.

I want to continue thinking about the differences/connections in these various forms of “life.” How do we distinguish unbearable from bearable from livable from good?

Engagement 2: Because/Happiness as Stopping Points

In her conclusion, Ahmed offers up the following description of happiness as a stopping point for discussion, much like how “because” functions in stopping childrens’ relentless posing of questions:

Happiness becomes a stopping point; happiness allows us to stop at a certain point, rather like the word because. The child asks you questions, or I ask questions in a way that people might say is “childlike.” Why this? If this, then why that? What that, then why…? Anything can take the place of the dots; the empty place that always marks the possibility of another question, the endless deferral that reminds us that all answers beg questions and that to give an answer is to create the condition of possibility for another question. Eventually, you stop. You must stop. You have to stop to put a stop to the questions because there are other things to do with your time. So you say, “because.” Why because? Because “because.” When because becomes an answer to a question the conversation can stop. Happiness provides such a because, a “because because.” We desire things, because of happiness. Because of happiness, we desire things. Happiness is how we can end the conversation about why it is that we desire what we desire. Happiness provides us with a full stop, a way of stopping an answer from being a question (203).

There are so many different ways in which this passage resonates for me and my thinking about the value of asking questions and the limits that are (sometimes necessarily) placed on that perpetual questioning of everything. What are the limits of questions? Should we ever stop? I don’t think these are the right questions to ask; they might even encourage us to stop asking questions even before we begin (which is connected to Ahmed’s point that happiness/because shut down a lot of possibilities for imagining of/living in worlds). Much like that annoying utterance, because. This reminds me of one of my recent tweets:

For more on Freire and the pedagogy of the question, check my discussion here and here. Is there a way to take a break from questions without stopping them? Can we answer questions in ways that signal our willingness to continue the conversation later? I strongly dislike answering any question with “because.” I have done it–my 4 year old asks a lot of questions. She reserves the most random and weighty ones for right after she has been tucked into bed, when I am least prepared to engage with them. I really try not to answer with “because,” or the even worse, “because…I said so!,” but what do we do when we are so tired from the day or uncertain about how to answer some very deep and highly politicized questions (about the meaning of existence, gender roles, why we die, G/god, and more)? Here’s one response by Freire in his “talking book” with Antonio Faundez, Learning to Question:

While I admire (and sometimes aspire to) this goal, I disagree with it as an unquestioned guiding principle. There should be limits to our questions (maybe not the amount that we have, but when and how we ask them). In my own thinking about curiosity and asking questions, I want to think about the different forms that curiosity can take and the different motivations we might have for asking questions. Curiosity about the world is often motivated by an agonistic desire to know (as in, to conquer, classify and contain). Sometimes it comes at the expense of other considerations (like respect for others and their desire to not be the objects of our scrutiny). It can encourage us to pay too much attention, to stare and to make spectacles of others whom we find strange. So, curiosity and the “right to ask questions” should not be uncritically promoted. Instead it needs to be encouraged in tandem with the development of a critical awareness of how and when to ask questions (not just a relentless “why?” but a “at whose expense?” and maybe, “what effects/affects do my questions have on others?”). On another, perhaps more personal note, even as I want my kids to ask lots of questions (and never lose that curiosity and wonder about the world), I do not want to encourage them to interrupt me (and others) at any moment with their questions. Even as I write these last few sentences, I am uncertain about my conclusions. In thinking about the how/why, I am not interested in establishing “proper” rules for questioning. Instead, I want to encourage myself/others/my kids to always consider the consequences of their questions and to pay critical attention to the world that is happening in their midst of their curiosity. How is this encouragement/paying attention possible? Hmm…makes me think of my interest in curiosity as care

Partly because I don’t like to have blog entries are the strictly prose, I wanted to add in two youtube videos that I found through my search of “curiosity asking questions.” The first one is entitled “A Study of Insistent Curiosity” and is part of 1shylah’s Channel or The Cybernetic Baby.

Some fascinating stuff. A little kid is exploring while someone (her dad?) films them. The kid repeatedly reaches for things that they are not supposed to, especially the lighter fluid. The person taking the video keeps saying “no” and “put it back” over and over again, but the kid keeps going back. They wonder why they can’t properly discipline the kid. At one point, towards the end of the video (starting at 7 mins in), the person taking the video exclaims, “Why don’t you learn? How did you get like this? Is it human nature? Where does your rebelliousness come from? Is it genetic? It must be genetic.” In some of their final remarks, the person taking the video promises to have a solution for how they disciplined the kid. I haven’t found that video yet. I don’t want to offer up an analysis of this clip. Instead I just want to pose it as a question about the nature/limits of curiosity and how we should encourage/discourage it in others, especially kids?

Okay, one more clip. I love youtube and how it allows me to find all sorts of examples/ideas with which to engage. This second clip was also found through my youtube search on “asking questions curiosity.” It’s part of the expertvillage youtube channel. Unfortunately you have to watch a brief commercial (not sure if it the same one every time. The one that I just watched was rather bothersome in its heteronormativity). This video is entitled, “Promoting curiosity in children.”

In this video, a women (presumably a/the mother) encourages parents to provide more opportunities for exploring that curiosity. After starting out with a brief discussion of using a telescope to watch a lunar eclipse, she suggests a few more ways to spark curiosity through exposing kids to new things, like: take kids to restaurants that have “different” types of food that they have never tried before (1:05) or to cultural events like a Native American “pow wow” (1:20). I can’t help but think about this in the context of my brief reference above to curiosity and conquering. Is it enough to encourage kids to try “new” things, like “different” (read as strange, “ethnic”) foods without considering the imperialist implications of this curiosity? I know I should/need to say more about what I mean with that last question, but I don’t want to right now. Instead, I want to leave it as an unfinished thought (an unanswered question) to take up again later (hopefully soon).